Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
As the opening day of preseason practice nears and his Hershey Trojans continue to pour gallons of sweat inside their own sparkling gymnasium or in some other playpen, Paul Blackburn knows there’s a sizable challenge parked in front of his players.
That’s why Blackburn has spent the summer and much of the fall coaching and teaching and prodding his youngsters to take the steps needed to add an element or two to their respective games so the collective effort throughout the winter carries more oomph.
Those experiences also put Hershey’s devoted players on the road in the summer and throughout the fall at college campuses such as West Chester, York and Messiah so the Trojans could generate the feedback necessary to determine what came next.
And while Blackburn readily admits that his seventh Hershey edition (19th overall) is searching for its identity — even though there’s a veteran presence on hand — these Trojans know that everyone really needs to be completely plugged in before the pursuit of Mid-Penn Keystone Division supremacy begins in earnest.
Especially since everyone has reached 1 A.P. — or, for those quizzically looking on from the outside, Year 1 of the post-Dylan Painter Era in Chocolatetown.
“Last year our focal point for us was Dylan and we played off of him,” Blackburn said of the 6-10, 240-pound Painter, now a freshman at Villanova after posting terrific numbers (22.5 points/13.5 rebounds) as a senior and landing first-team all-state honors.
“Like we talked about many times before, it took it us till midway through the year to make everybody effective on both ends of the floor,” added Blackburn, whose Trojans finished 12-10 last season, 7-7 in league play. “We won eight of our last 10 and we were a very good team, but we were very disappointed we didn’t get into the playoffs.
“Our goal this year is to just be the best version of us that we can be. We want to be task-oriented, not ego-oriented.”
Helps explain why Blackburn’s Trojans — Blackburn is 88-54 at Hershey and 266-188 overall — work so doggone hard.
Not only because they want to become better players and uncover that identity, but they also want so desperately to succeed and pile up positive results.
“It was just everyone wanting to get better,” said 6-1 senior guard Luke Blackburn following an October victory over York High at York College’s Grumbacher Center.
“Last year we had a disappointing season with Painter when we went 12-10 and didn’t make districts,” Luke Blackburn continued. “That kind of fueled everyone to want to get better this summer so we can have a better season. Just fueled everyone to get better as a person and just win as a team, come together.”
Added Paul Blackburn: “We want to do well.”
And while the Trojans may have relied on Painter to come up with a timely bucket or clutch a needed rebound or bail out a gambling guard with a blocked shot at the rim, this group likely will need to be more resourceful to be successful.
Playing better defensively, something that’s caused Paul Blackburn to review some decades-old practice plans and scouting reports. Going to the deck to come up with a loose ball that might cause a change of possession or ignite a needed run. Winning 50-50 plays, whether on the floor or on the glass or wherever.
“Getting on loose balls, rebounds,” said 6-2 junior guard Jake Wilson, a two-year starter who last season averaged 8.5 points per game and led Hershey with 28 treys.
“We’ve got to win those to have every possession we need to score.”
Those sorts of things are the types of plays that exemplify what Paul Blackburn means when he says his club needs to be the best version of us.
Oh, there’s talent here. There’s also desire and yet, at the same time, there’s that great unknown inside the Hershey locker room that has outsiders curious. Wary, too.
“We don’t really pass the Eye Test,” Luke Blackburn said candidly. “People will look at us and say we’re not gonna do much of anything. As a team, we play really well together.
“There’s no individual talent like Dylan on our team,” he added. “We don’t have a superstar and we don’t have any Division I players.”
Yet with Luke Blackburn (4.1 ppg/14 treys) and Wilson just part of a returning nucleus that’s had more than a mere taste of Keystone Division play, these Trojans know what needs to be done and they’re determined to make some neat things happen.
Other veterans on hand include 5-10 sophomore Luke Hedrick (4.8 ppg/16 treys), 6-3 junior Sean Coller (1.9 ppg), 6-1 junior Chase Wallace (3.6 ppg/10 treys) and 6-1 senior Eric Larson (1.0 ppg). Plus, senior Ross Good (1.8) adds size inside at 6-7.
Three youngsters — 6-7 junior Nick Hines, 6-4 junior Drew Painter and 5-10 sophomore Griffin Jackson — also hope to figure into a Hershey rotation that’s certainly in flux and seeking clarity as preseason practice after preseason practice unfolds.
“We’re developing our role,” said Paul Blackburn, who has been re-energized by the challenge ahead. “We’re trying to find a great screener, a guy that can guard real well. We have to because we don’t have a first-team all-state guy.
“So, our team is really based upon our team.”
And Blackburn’s Hershey team has a legitimate chance to vie for a Keystone Division championship — especially since every one of the Trojans’ league playmates is in some sort of transition as the start of 2016-17 campaign draws closer and closer.
It’s so tight, in fact, that each night out may be a coin flip.
“It’s definitely up for grabs,” Wilson said. “Every game is going to be critical, so we’re going to have to play 110 percent.
“Our league’s pretty good all around, so we’re gonna have to step it up.”
“It makes it difficult because we really don’t know what we’re walking into every night because everyone else has a new team and everyone graduated seniors, so it’s going to be tough for us and for them,” Luke Blackburn added. “It is what it is.”
Also in play is a challenging nonleague slate featuring dates with Elizabethtown, crosstown rival Milton Hershey, East Pennsboro and Lebanon, along with possible tournament dustups against Allentown Allen, Cumberland Valley and others.
If everything goes the way they hope, Blackburn’s Trojans will be in the mix for the Keystone Division title and land one of 16 invites to the District 3 5A playoffs.
Yet they know there’s plenty to sort out before those hopes can materialize.
“We can’t just walk the ball up, dump into a first-team all-state guy and play off of that,” Paul Blackburn said. “We’ve got to do some different things. Yeah, the coaching staff is challenged. The players are challenged. No one’s backing down.
“We like playing in the Keystone Division,” Blackburn continued. “We like our non-conference stuff. Just really excited for the season.”
And while there are a series of hurdles that Hershey is aware of and hoping to clear, everyone is looking forward — not in some rear-view mirror — as 1 A.P. nears.
“I’ve always believed that what happened yesterday, we’ve got to leave to yesterday,” Paul Blackburn said. “I’ll use the teaching points; you guys make them evolve.
“So, I think that they’re excited. I think we’re all disappointed that we didn’t make districts last year. I think we’re all disappointed that we got off to a poor start. I think we’re all disappointed that we didn’t accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish and play the way we did for longer periods of time.
“So, that’s why I think their collective commitment to each other and getting better as individuals so they can get better as a team in the offseason has been great. So, as a coach, I’m looking forward to it. Our staff’s looking forward to it,” Blackburn continued. “Again, I think the kids are looking forward to it.”